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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Final ActiveE Meet: Pizza, Salad and BMW i3's

We've had an unusually cold spring so far here in New Jersey. I've wanted to host a final ActiveE meet for a few weeks now but the cold temperatures concerned me. There would be a few people coming from good distances and the reduced range because of the cold might be an issue so I had been holding off for a while.

Once I saw we would have consistent temperatures in the 60's I announced the meet on the ActiveE Facebook group page. Coincidentally, the day of the meet happened to be the day that the BEV i3's were released from the ports and shipped to the dealers here in the US, giving us even more to talk about.We ended up having eight ActiveE drivers come (even though two had to take other cars for various reasons).

The Thwaite's i3 is ready to go!
As usual we hung out in the parking lot for a while, talked about not wanting to let go of our ActiveE's but that we were indeed excited about getting our i3's. Michael and Pamela Thwaite got the good news from client adviser Manny Antunes of JMK BMW (who came to the meet also to answer any i3 questions we had) that their i3 arrived at his dealership that afternoon and would be ready for delivery on Saturday. Needless to say, the rest of the group was then officially jealous!

Pizza, salad, friends and talking EV. What could be better?
Electronaut Edition badge
Everyone at the meet has an i3 on order. BMW hasn't released the official ActiveE conversion rate but I've heard from some people in the know say it's somewhere north of 60% which is pretty good. Our small sample was 100% so I figure 60% to 65% may be pretty close. Of course that was how many Electronauts reserved an i3. We still have to option of declining the car when it comes in. Since we had to order the car without knowing exactly what it would cost us and what the Electronaut Edition i3 was we couldn't be bound to the order. I suspect a few will cancel for various reasons, but the number will likely end up very close to 60%, over or under.

With the cars arriving at dealers every day, and ships carrying them docking at the ports every few days, the ActiveE's days are numbered. My rental agreement ends on June 30th which should be pretty close to when I get my i3. My car is currently on the Fedora vehicle carrier ship, and is due at the port in NJ on May 15th. I figure about 5 or 6 days later I'll be picking it up from JMK BMW so I'll have about a week with both cars. Just enough time to conduct some road comparison tests and take a bunch of pictures of them together as I did with my MINI-E and ActiveE.
Hanging out and talking EV. We even had a Zero electric motorcycle join in!

It's been an incredible 5 year journey in BMW's trial leasing e-mobility programs. In a way I'm sad it's over but I an definitely happy to see that the participation from me and the others has delivered a revolutionary vehicle. It's the most efficient car sold in America and BMW uses manufacturing processes and materials not used by any other automobile manufacturer. No volume production car has ever been made with such a high emphasis on sustainability and I do expect other manufacturers are now going to follow BMW's lead.

i3 Monroney label: 81 miles per charge
BMW has indeed stepped into the future with the i3. That being said, it's not perfect. I think the biggest complaint is that many of us are not thrilled with the electric range it has. It was EPA rated at 81 miles per charge which is 14% less than the ActiveE's 94 (which was about 14% less than the MINI-E). I really didn't want to get the range extender, but felt the range was so much less than both the MINI-E and ActiveE that I have no choice but to add the oil burner. I'll do another post here (likely the final post on this blog) and offer more thoughts on this though, as well as where I'd like to see BMW take the i brand.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Electronaut Email Raises Questions & Intrigue

When I opened my email today I noticed that BMW sent out another "Electronaut News" notification. These have been sent out periodically over the course of the past two years to the ActiveE drivers to offer tips on driving the ActiveE, updates on technical issues and information about the upcoming BMW i3. Now that the ActiveE program is just about finished, the Electronaut News emails have been more and more about the i3, and less and less about the ActiveE with every message. Well, we really must be close to the end of the ActiveE program because in this email BMW didn't even mention it! They did however offer a teaser for the Electronauts that are moving on to an i3 though. BMW has promised a special Electronaut Edition i3 for those that leased an ActiveE and are now getting an i3, with special features that will not be available to the public. However they didn't actually specify exactly what those special features would be, other than to say some of it would be a custom trunk mat and Electronaut Edition badging.

However when we had the private Electronaut i3 test drive at BMW HQ in Woodcliff Lake, NJ in December, one of the things we were told was the Electronaut Edition i3 would have features that were consistent with our pioneering spirit, leading some of us to wonder if there would indeed be some kind of special hardware that only we would get, and not simply some fancy badges. Since then, we haven't heard anything about our special EE edition cars, and we really have no idea what they will entail. Until we receive the email below:

Dear Thomas,

We can hardly wait for the BMW i3 to finally hit the streets. But more importantly, we’re sure you can’t wait to have your very own sitting in your driveway. The BMW i3 Electronaut Edition is a truly special vehicle, with exclusive features and upgrades valued at $1,750 just for Electronauts. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be revealing these features as we lead up to the arrival of the BMW i3.

The first of these two features can be found under the hood of the car. There, you’ll find a special Electronaut Edition board bag. And inside you can store your DC Combo Fast Charger Cable. With this cable upgrade, you’ll be able to charge your BMW i3 to 80% in approximately 30 minutes. This means you’ll be able to get back on the road and continue charging forward.

Please note, because orders have been so high, BMW is currently experiencing a slight delay in the release of the Tera World model. However, production is amping up, so expect to receive more information about vehicle availability shortly.

For the doors and on the floors.

So, what else will be in the BMW i3 Electronaut Edition? There’s a hint below, but we’ll be sure to fill you in on four more features in the next email. Watch that inbox.

Did you catch the "And inside you can store your DC Combo Fast Charger Cable"? OK, what is a DC Combo Fast Charge Cable? I know what DC Combo Fast charge is, and I know what portable EVSE's are for electric cars, but I have never heard of a DC Combo Fast charge cable and I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist unless BMW has some kind of new technology they are planning on revealing. If so, that would indeed qualify as letting us "continue with the pioneering spirit of the Electronaut program" so now I'm definitely intrigued. I just hope it wasn't a mistake by the person commissioned to send out the Electronaut News emails, and they have made mistakes before.

I honestly can't come up with what it would be. DC fast chargers, regardless of the "standard" they use (Tesla, CHAdeMO or CCS Combo) have a charging cable tethered to the unit and it isn't removable. These cables are thick and heavy and it would be terribly cumbersome to lug the thing around with you and hook it up every time you stopped at a CD fast charger. The only thing I can possibly imagine is if BMW developed a system to use the CCS combo port on the i3 to charge car to car, allowing a fellow i3 (or any other CCS Combo equipped car with the same technology) to give another car a boost. However that is just a wild guess because I really can't come up with anything better. I suspect whatever it is we'll find out soon. With NYIAS next week, I'm sure BMW would take this opportunity to announce it if it is indeed some kind of new technology so we won't have to wait long. Unless of course it was indeed just a mistake and there is no DC Combo Fast Charge cable to begin with.

So is this a case of miscommunication and error, or will the Electronauts really get something unique for their time spent in the ActiveE trial lease program?
An i3 charging on a DC Combo Fast Charger at the LA Auto show last year. Notice how thick the cable is so it can handle the high current used for quick charging. Could you really carry that around?

4/11/14 EDIT:

Well the fun didn't last long. A few hours after I made this post BMW sent out another email that was meant to "clarify" the original one. Looks like there isn't any special new DC combo cable as I suspected. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Below is the email sent out last night :(

Dear Electronauts,

We’ve been very excited to share the exclusive features of the BMW i3 Electronaut Edition. As a follow-up to yesterday's email, allow us to clarify the newly released features.
  • The Electronaut Edition Board Bag: This exclusive bag fits under the hood of your BMW i3 and can hold your Mobility Kit and Occasional Use Cable (OUC). As an added bonus, it is water resistant.
  • The DC Fast Charging Option: This option is being provided at no additional cost to Electronauts. It will charge your BMW i3 up to 80% in approximately 20 minutes when charging at 50kW.
We apologize for any confusion this may have caused. Please stay tuned for more Electronaut Edition features over the next few weeks.

The BMW ActiveE Team

Thursday, March 20, 2014

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Well not exactly, but close. With the US launch of the BMW i3 only a few weeks away, the ActiveE's days are numbered. Sure BMW will likely use some of the returning ActiveE's to add to the fleet of their car sharing service DriveNow, but the majority of the returned cars will likely be decommissioned. Many of the other “Electronauts” have already returned their ActiveE’s and moved on to other electric cars, while others are waiting for the launch of the i3. For the Electronauts that have i3's on order, BMW has allowed lease extensions so they can transition seamlessly into their new i3, which is what I am doing.
This is all too familiar and as much as I have enjoyed participating in the MINI-E and ActiveE trial lease programs, I have not enjoyed the part where you have to give the car back. We all knew it was part of the deal; these aren't our cars and we knew we only had a limited time with them, but just like when the MINI-E program ended, many of the participants lament having to return the cars that they have become so attached to.

As much as I'm going to miss the ActiveE, this isn't the same as I felt when I had to return my MINI-E. I really loved that car. It wasn't as sophisticated as the ActiveE and it wasn't as well engineered. It didn't have heated leather seats or a thermal management system. You couldn't set it to precondition and it didn't have a back seat or a trunk. was one helluva fun little car. With the ActiveE I feel a little like I traded in my sneakers and t-shirt for a pinstripe suit. Sure I may look better in the suit, but in my opinion the ActiveE lacked a little of the soul the MINI-E had. The ActiveE was definitely a great EV and had all the amenities and luxury you'd expect in a proper BMW, but to me something was missing.

The ActiveE launch event at BMW HQ
Maybe it was just that the MINI-E was my first electric car and nothing will be able to compare to it now. It was the car that showed me the world of electric drive, and how plugging beats filling up any way you slice it. Back in 2011 BMW selected me to be the first person to take delivery of an ActiveE and I can remember the launch event at BMW headquarters like it was only a few weeks ago. BMW CEO Ludwig Willisch made a short speech and then handed me the microphone to say some words and the first thing I said to him was "Are you sure I can't keep my MINI-E". I'm not so sure Willisch or anybody at BMW appreciated that since this was the ActiveE launch party but that was how I felt. I don't feel like that with the ActiveE though, and I can see handing back the keys next month without feeling hardly any remorse.

My MINI-E was really a blast to drive
That's not to say I haven't enjoyed my time with the ActiveE, because I definitely have. It really was the best choice for me once the MINI-E program ended. Back when I got my ActiveE there really wasn't another electric car I would rather have as my daily driving vehicle. Since then, the Tesla Model S came out and has taken electric cars to a new level but the i3 is really the EV that I want which is why I'm getting one. I definitely have considered moving on to a Model S, but I just can't see myself driving a car that is so large; it's really just too much car for me. My time with the ActiveE has been fun, and I have been luckier than many of the other Electronauts since my cars have had very little problems, while some others haven't been so lucky. I do think part of what I miss from the MINI-E is the performance. The ActiveE holds it's own, but it's not really a fast car. You do get the great instant torque acceleration that electric cars provide, but at 4,000lbs it's just too heavy for the 170hp motor. Zero to sixty times of nine-plus seconds just doesn't cut it in my book, and I want a little more performance from my car. The MINI-E was a full second faster 0-60 than the ActiveE is and it actually felt like there was an even bigger difference. The i3 on the other hand is about a second faster than the MINI-E was, which makes it two seconds faster to 60mph than the ActiveE is, and you can definitely feel it. Shaving about 1,300lbs off the weight off the ActiveE while using the same motor makes a huge difference and gives the i3 even more punch than the MINI-E while it retains the refinement of the ActiveE.

The i3's has more interior room than the AE
Besides better performance the i3 charges much faster than the ActiveE, especially since BMW dialed back the charging rate of the ActiveE a few months ago because of problems with the onboard charger (which incidentally has been redesigned for the i3). It now takes me six hours to fully charge the ActiveE and that's terribly inconvenient for someone that drives a lot like I do. I'm now only getting about 15 miles per hour of charging and the i3 will likely get me 25 to 30 miles per hour of charging, which will be a welcomed improvement and allow me to drive it more. The i3 also has much more interior volume than the ActiveE with roomier front and rear seating and can accept more cargo than the ActiveE since its trunk is compromised by the intrusion of the power electronics. Roll that in with the fact the i3 is a gigantic leap forward in automotive technology being the first mass produced car ever to employ a carbon fiber body with an aluminum chassis and plastic outer panels. The i3 uses 70% less water a typical car needs during manufacturing process, much of the materials used come from recycled or sustainable sources and the Leipzig plant where they are made is powered entirely by renewable energy. These things matter to me and while they aren't paramount, they do add to the i3's appeal.
I drove my MINI-E to the ActiveE launch ceremony, and drove home in the ActiveE. BMW cleaned up the MINI-E and put it on display next to my ActiveE for the event.

Is my indifference to returning the ActiveE primarily because it wasn't my first EV, or is it the fact that I believe the i3 is so much better than the ActiveE that I'm just looking forward to getting it so I've already mentally moved on. I really don't know, but I am glad this is my last forced-goodby. From now on, how long I have my electric car will be decided solely by how long I want to keep it, and not by a manufacturer that decided it's reached its expiration date. However I definitely do not regret participating in BMW's trial lease e-mobility programs at all, in fact it's been a fantastic ride. For the past five years I have had the opportunity to drive two great electric vehicles and I am really inspired by how far we've come since I got my MINI-E in 2009. Back when I got my MINI-E the only choice to drive electric was to buy a $110,000 Tesla Roadster or build your own EV. Now there are over a dozen cars that plug in and they range from a high end luxury sedan that goes 265 miles per charge to affordable PHEV's that are within many family budgets. The auto industry generally moves at a glacial pace, so even though many people aren't happy with how quickly (or slowly) EV's are advancing, what we have seen in the past half a decade is indeed a huge step forward. The electrification of the automobile industry is indeed underway, even if many people don't realize it just yet.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

My DriveNow Car Sharing Experience

This post isn't about my ActiveE but it is about the ActiveE. Actually it's really about BMW's car sharing program called DriveNow which I had the opportunity to use last week.

I'm a Plug In America board member and while we have monthly calls, we also have bi-annual in-person board meetings. The meetings are held in California since that is where most of the board members reside. Our first meeting of 2014 was last week and I needed to fly out to San Francisco for about a 24 hour stay. I was thinking about renting a car but then I realized that BMW's car sharing program, DriveNow operated in the area, and even had a location at SFO so this would be a great opportunity to try it out.

DriveNow is currently only available in the Bay area and in a couple of cities in Germany. You basically rent a car on-demand and pay by the minute. It can be one way or a round trip so you can drop it off at any DriveNow station regardless of where you picked it up from. Since you only pay for the time you have it, there’s no penalty for doing a one-way rental. There is a $12 minimum charge for the first 30 minutes, 32¢ for each additional minute and 13¢ per minute for parking. I was charged $60.00 for having it 24 hours which is a current special. The usual 24 hour rental is $90.00. That's still a great deal in my opinion as you get to drive a rare electric BMW that you can't even buy!

Touchscreen Display
I'm bullish on car sharing and I really think we'll have multiple car sharing options in virtually every city  inside of ten years. The great thing about DriveNow though is that they are using electric cars (the ActiveE) as their whole fleet here in the US. I'm sure as they expand they will introduce gas cars though, but they definitely plan to use BMW i3s as well. DriveNow has only been here for less than two years and as you would expect they have been experiencing teething pains.  I've read stories of people having difficulty activating the car with their card, and showing up only to find the car isn't charged but that is really to be expected as this is a brand new service and they will likely need time to work all of the kinks out. So I really didn't know what to expect, but I was willing to give it a shot. After all, I was there to attend a Plug In America board meeting so I had to use a car that plugs in while I was there, right?

Madison was my ride for the day
The whole experience turned out great. I signed up online a few weeks earlier and received my DriveNow card that you use to activate the car in the mail. When I arrived in San Francisco I had a choice of locations to pick up the car from. SkyPark at SFO has a shuttle that will take you right to the ActiveE's waiting for customers. You can only reserve a car for 15 minutes though, so it's kind of a leap of faith that there will be a car at the DriveNow station you expected to pick it up at. The app shows you where all the available cars are so you could go get another one if somebody took the car you were expecting to take. However I'm told there are usually cars at SkyPark available since it's one of the main DriveNow stations. As the service expands and there are more cars available, I think this will be less of a problem.  The cars are named and I chose Madison since the app showed it was 100% charged. The one thing I noticed though was the other cars that were parked at the same location were plugged in but not charging so they were fully charged also, however the DriveNow app indicated they weren't fully charged. Perhaps it doesn't refresh as frequently as it needs to?

You use your DriveNow card to open and lock the doors. Inside the car there is a touch screen display to begin and end your session, and to initiate a parking session where the car remains reserved for you. The DriveNow card is also a ChargePoint Network card so you can use it to charge the car while you have it on any networked ChargePoint charging station. That's a great idea for those who don't already have an electric car, since they likely wouldn't have a ChargePoint membership card.

I returned the car to the SkyPark location just outside of SFO airport. There was a shuttle bus there ready for me and without waiting at all I was dropped off at my terminal. Shortly after ending my driving session I received an email with the bill. The total was $65.02 ($5.02 in taxes) which as I mentioned above is a great deal in my opinion. Using DriveNow was simple and I paid nothing for the fuel I used, as that's included in the rental fee and I would have used about $10 in gas if I rented a gas car for my trip. Plus, God forbid you return a rental car without filling the gas tank to the level it was when you took it, because you'll get hit with crazy service fees and pay an exorbitant amount for the gas as a penalty for not refueling.

So if you are traveling to the Bay area and need some wheels for a while don't hesitate to use DriveNow unless you need to drive long distances where the 80-90 mile range of the ActiveE would be a problem. Or, maybe you live in the Bay area and want to see how driving an all electric BMW feels. Either way, you get to drive a rare all electric BMW, you can drive it all you want without paying for fuel, and you can return it to any of the DriveNow locations regardless of where you picked it up from and you won't have to pay an extra "location fee". You get the smooth acceleration, the quiet cabin and instant torque the electric motor of the ActiveE and the luxury and driving experience expected in a BMW. I know I won't hesitate to use it again the next time I'm in the Bay area.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Automotive News Story on Electronaut Impact

About two months ago Diana Kurylko from the Automotive News reached out to me and asked me if she could interview me for a story she want to write. Diana had just returned from the first ever journalist i3 drive event that BMW hosted in Amsterdam.

Sattig with an i3 at the LA Auto Show
While she was there she interviewed program managers that were responsible for the i3's development and many of them told here how important it was that they had input from the MINI-E and ActiveE drivers and how the leanings from those programs helped to make the i3 a better EV. However her conversation with Manuel Sattig, BMW i project manager inspired her to look me up once she returned home. Evidently Manuel told her how I had been a help with providing feedback and suggestions, and he even mentioned how I had driven the most miles in the MINI-E and ActiveE programs.

The past five years driving the MINI-E and ActiveE have been a lot of fun. Knowing that my input, along with the others in these trial lease programs, has influenced the development of the i3 makes it even better. I really look forward to the i3 and what's beyond it. BMW has more up their electric sleeve than they are letting on to. These are really exciting times. The story Diane wrote appeared in today's Automotive News. The link to the full text is below:

Feedback from enthusiastic early adopters shapes EVs of the future.